Digital Camera Buying Guide – Features – What to Look for

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Features… What should you look for?

Every few months or so, a new camera is introduced to the market that makes your buying decision even harder!  With so many models to choose from, it’s hard to know the essential features to look for. So be prepared to experience camera envy after you’ve purchased your camera. Hopefully with smart buying choices, you will buy a camera for its true features instead of the bells and whistles that you will have no use for in the future.

What you actually need versus what you think you need

Let’s take a moment to consider your real requirements. With all the new and improved features of digital cameras, you need to focus on what you actually need the camera to do. Will you be shooting mostly indoors or outdoors? Are your subjects fast-moving, like sports, pets or kids?  How often will you encounter low lighting situations? The list of considerations may seem daunting but it’s worth the read.  Few photographers will require all the features listed, but this is the stepping stone to establishing which features are for you.

  • Megapixels
  • Total Zoom: Optical and Digital
  • LCD screen
  • ISO
  • Manual control
  • White balance
  • Image Stabilization
  • Red Eye Reduction
  • Battery
  • WiFi
  • Style and size


Many brick and mortar stores focus on megapixels, with the general rule that the more megapixels the better. Yet it’s not always true! Let’s explore what megapixels really are and what they mean to you.

Digital pictures are composed of a series of dots called pixels. The more megapixels you have, the more detail a camera can capture which directly translates to how big you can print your picture before it becomes grainy or unclear. Think of a picture on a mosaic composed of many tiles. The more tiles, the clearer the image, and the better the quality.

Because megapixels greatly affect the price of your camera, you should figure out what size prints you would like and adjust your budget accordingly. If you will never print anything greater than a 5×7 you really don’t need to go higher than a 4.0MP camera.  Instead, your budget can be used for features, functions, and accessories instead of pixels that you will never use.

What are the benefits of higher resolution cameras? A great advantage of going one megapixel grade higher than your actual needs is cropping capability.  You can take a photograph at 4MP (best for 8×10) and crop the image to a 5×7 without losing any quality.

Take a look at the chart below to determine your requirements:

Print SizeMegapixels


Digital Cameras under 6MP »
Digital Cameras 6MP to 8MP »
Digital Cameras over 8MP »

Total Zoom

All consumer digital cameras have zoom lens capabilities. The zoom function on your camera can be especially handy when you want to shoot something far away but can’t get quite close enough. It also helps with creative framing of portraits and focusing attention on the subject instead of showing too much distracting background.

Be sure to read each camera’s specifications clearly. The total zoom is measured by the optical zoom multiplied by the digital zoom. For example: 3x optical zoom and 4x digital zoom equals 12x total zoom. Be sure that the optical zoom meets your requirements and consider the digital zoom as a bonus feature.

Optical Zoom

What is the difference between optical and digital zoom? The optical zoom of a point and shoot is determined by how far the camera lens can physically extend from the camera body. This is also known as the focal length.

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Optical Zoom of 4x, Courtesy of Canon USA

This allows you to get closer to your subject without physically moving yourself. The average camera will have the ability to zoom 3x, or three times closer compared to the widest setting of the camera.  With optical zoom you will not lose any image quality.
Optical Zoom 3x and under »
Optical Zoom 4x to 6x »
Optical Zoom over 6x »

Digital Zoom

When the optical zoom is at its maximum focal length, digital zoom kicks in to allow you to get even closer to your subject. Without actually capturing more detail, digital zoom simulates optical zoom by blowing up a portion of the image. In essence, it is just enlarging the individual pixels which in turn creates an image of lesser quality. It may look pixilated and contain “noise” or strange colour speckles.  That’s why it’s good to consider digital zoom a bonus, and don’t rely on it like you would the optical zoom.

LCD Screen

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Front and top view of consumer cameras

No longer a novelty, LCD screens are a huge consideration for many consumers. After all, if you can’t see the subject clearly, how are you supposed to take a photograph? Luckily LCD screens have come a long way and come in surprisingly larger sizes for easy viewing and shooting.

More often than not, point and shoot photographers use the LCD screen located on the back of their camera instead of the viewfinder. In fact some consumer cameras don’t even have a viewfinder anymore! LCDs are convenient, allow you to shoot with the camera farther away from you, and provide immediate playback of the image(s) you just shot.

LCD stands for liquid crystal display. Screens are available in varying resolutions. The higher the resolution, the closer the LCD represents the actual image when it’s printed.  You’ll use your LCD screen not only to frame your shots and preview your images – it will be the main hub containing all your menu options. 
LCD screens 1.8” »

LCD screens 2.0” »
LCD screens 2.4” »
LCD screens 2.5” »
LCD screens 2.8” »
LCD screens 3.0” »


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Achieve great results in low lit environments.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for consumer cameras is capturing low light photographs.  Pictures may be blurred, subjects could appear ghostly, and sometimes they are too dark.  However, technologies in ISO are rapidly improving consumer cameras and with ISO speeds of up to 3000, poor quality low light images are becoming a thing of the past!

For low light photography, it is a good idea to figure out the highest ISO setting of the camera you intend to purchase.  ISO in film cameras is a measurement of how fast or sensitive the film is to light. The “faster” the film, the more sensitive it is to light, and the less it needs to be exposed. This is a huge benefit in low lighting as it will decrease blur and result in a sharper image. But there is a trade-off: The faster the film speed, the grainier or noisy the image.

What does all this mean?  If you tend to take photographs indoors or at night, consider getting a camera with a maximum ISO setting of at least 800.  Anything beyond that is good for extremely low lighting, but expect a grainier image. These higher ISO compact cameras tend to fall in the advanced category, but they also have automatic ISO choices for different light sources.

Manual Control

Achieve great results in low lit environments.So you’re a bit of an expert, like to tweak things here and there, and prefer the control over aperture, speed, and white balance. Have no fear, advanced compacts often have manual controls over these functions.

If not, stick with the point and shoot variety. They’re fun and easy to use and if you’ll never use any of the manual overrides, why pay for the extra features?

Back to advanced compact cameras. Although they all have pre-set modes for various subject and lighting situations, sometimes trickier conditions require manual adjustment in order to achieve better quality images.

Most automatic shooting modes cover the basics such as portrait, landscape, backlighting, and close-ups. Each setting will vary the aperture, shutter speed, and focal length and each is designed for quick shooting in various situations. You don’t need to be an expert to produce quality images!

White Balancing

Most cameras have automatic white balancing built in. Here’s an explanation of the term white balance.

Light sources from light bulbs, fluorescents, and the sun emit different colours. The human eye automatically corrects this colour and recognizes whites even in slightly coloured light sources. For instance when you are outside on a bright sunny day (blue light), when you put on amber coloured sunglasses, everything appears more clear. Taking these sunglasses off, everything appears blue but your eyes adjust quickly to compensate for the blue light and quickly adapt to the environment.

Unfortunately cameras are not as sophisticated as they human eye, and can’t accomplish the same adjustment without a white balance feature. Most digital point and shoot cameras have preset white balance controls like Sunny, Tungsten (Indoor), Fluorescent, and Cloudy.  Each setting will compensate for the specific light source’s colour that you can physically see in the LCD screen.

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The photo on the right demonstrates how the proper white balance setting provides the best colour rendition. Notice how the whites of the models eyes are actually a pure white in the second photograph.

If you’re not sure what kind of lighting you are shooting in, try using the instant preview while you’re scrolling through the different pre-sets. This will allow you to determine which setting produces the best colour rendition. Although most cameras have an automatic white balance option, many have a custom white balance choice that will allow you to set it for a particular shot.

Image Stabilization

Blurry photographs are frustrating when you are trying to capture the perfect moment.  Often, the blur is due to camera shake and slow shutter speeds. To compensate for these factors, many cameras now have an image stabilization or vibration reduction feature built into their lenses. How does this all work?  Basically the lens element closest to the camera is movable. If you shake the camera in one direction, the element rotates and pivots in the opposite direction, bending the light a bit to make up for the motion. The result is a sharper image ideal for low lighting.  It’s magic! Well it’s not really but it sure helps with shaky hands and it’s a good idea to invest in this feature.
Cameras with Image Stabilization »

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With some hand shake the image of the left demonstrates how the photographer’s movement can affect the sharpness of the photograph. With Image Stabilization (right photo), the camera compensates and the picture remains clear.

Red Eye Reduction

We’ve all seen demonic pictures of our friends and family with horrific red eyes. Some of us may not be savvy enough to know how to correct this using software like Photoshop.  However, digital cameras are getting smarter!

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Red-Eye Correction

Red eye occurs when the light of the flash is reflecting from the retina, which is covered with tiny blood vessels. It’s most noticeable on people with blue or green eyes.  Many cameras use a pre-flash to contract the pupils of your subjects prior to the actual shot.  Remember this works only if your subject is looking! Red eye is particularly more evident in low lighting shots and although red eye reduction features do work, they are not completely foolproof.


What kind of battery should you look for in a camera?  Most point and shoots now a days come with rechargeable batteries of some sort (good for the environment!).  The camera is usually packaged with this battery and its corresponding charger.

Cameras that use AA type batteries are ideal for travellers or those that maybe be forgetful in charging their batteries. Because they use AA batteries (rechargeable or regular) they’re great for travel even if you forgot your charger at home. Use the rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) type to cut the cost of disposable batteries and help save our earth!

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Lithium Ion or Li-ion batteries are made specifically for each model. These are not the universal interchangeable batteries that can be used between various models. Generally these batteries produce more images per charge than your standard AA batteries, and often recycle more quickly than non-rechargeables – important when you’re taking candid photos using flash.  You can always purchase a secondary backup battery along with your charger for travel purposes.
Cameras that use NiMH or AA batteries » 
Cameras that use Lithium Ion batteries » 
Cameras that use Lithium Ion or AA batteries

Wireless WiFi

In most cases, digital cameras come with a USB cord that allows you to transfer your images to your computer.  With PictBridge capable cameras, you can connect your camera to your printer directly and print photographs without ever having to connect to your computer. Wireless WiFi is even more convenient! Consumer digital cameras with WiFi capability typically include special software allowing you to send images wirelessly to your computer. With a push of a button, your images can be transferred to a designated folder on your hard drive.  An added benefit is that some cameras are capable of shooting when tethered to a computer. With the program running on your PC or Mac, you can shoot images with your camera and instantaneously transfer to your hard drive for viewing and storage.

Style and Size

Although not truly a fashion accessory (or is it?), you should consider the size and style of your digital camera. Is the camera comfortable to hold?  Switching between holding it with two hands in portrait or landscape positions and one hand shooting will determine if the camera is the right fit for you. How will you carry your camera? Slim cameras easily slip into pockets while larger digital cameras with more features or longer zooms may require a bag or purse.  Locate the camera functions and buttons; are they easily accessible on the camera itself or are they in the menu functions? Once you know all the features you need plus the style of camera, your digital camera choice should be an easy one!
Slim Cameras » 
Compact Cameras » 
Advanced Cameras »